On this day in 1865, the Confederate Congress agrees to continue prisoner exchanges, opening a process that had operated only sporadically for three years.
In the first year of the Civil War, prisoner exchanges were conducted primarily between field generals on an ad hoc basis. The Union was reluctant to enter any formal agreements, fearing that it would legitimize the Confederate government. But the issue became more important as the campaigns escalated in 1862. In July 1862, Union General John Dix and Confederate General Daniel H. Hill reached an agreement inwhich each soldier was assigned a value according to rank. For example, one privatewas worth another private; corporals and sergeants were worth two privates; andlieutenants were worth three privates. A commanding general was worth 60 privates. Under this system, thousands of soldiers were exchanged rather than languishing in prisons like those in Andersonville, Georgia, or Elmira, New York.
The system was really a gentlemen’s agreement, relying on the trust of each side.It broke down in 1862 when Confederates refused to exchange black Union soldiers. From 1862 to 1865, prisoner exchanges were rare. When they did happen, it was usually because two local commanders came to a workable agreement. The result of the breakdown was the swelling of prisoner-of-war camps in both the North and South. The most notorious of all the camps was Andersonville, where one-third of the approximately 46,000 Union troops incarcerated died of disease, exposure, or starvation.
Though the prisoner exchanges resumed in January 1865, the end of the war was so close that it did not make much difference.